Somehow we get away with the baby. We can’t believe our luck when we land on the train, baby in her stroller cheeky as a monkey and the whole day ahead of us.
We figure out how to use the brake on the pram. It isn’t very good and a couple of times the pram rolls but we catch it in time. Once the train gets going, we talk about where we’ll go, what we might do. The plan is to go into town and walk around, maybe go down to the gardens and have lunch on the grass. The baby eats pureed food so one of us will have to spoon feed her. She can eat chips though because she’s good at holding things in her chubby little fist.
We both want to be the mother and argue about whether being a relative is a better reason than the fact the baby is the exact spit of the other person. In the end, we agree to take turns pushing the pram. Whoever has the pram, if someone asks, that person can say they are the mother and the baby her baby.
Even if no-one asks, they will think one of us is the mother, the teenage mother with a baby, too young to have a baby, should be in school and where is the father? Some hopeless unreliable boy who’s run off or denied he was the father anyway. No father in the picture, just a teenage mother with a baby in a pram, and her friend, the other teenager. Two girls with no sense.
We are heading for town but there are other places we can walk around with the pram. We think the Housing Commission flats might be a good place to start, so we get off at Macaulay Station. The high-rise flats rear up, four blocky buildings, 50 storeys high, arranged at angles to each other like Lego. We’ll blend in there, with the other teenage mothers and their pimply mates.
I push the pram to start with. The baby has fallen asleep, slightly tipped over. We set off down Macaulay Road, it’s further than we thought to the flats. Several times older women pass us, checking the baby first and then frowning at the sight of us. Boys who would usually hassle us or at least say something, look at us first and then the pram, and decide to keep going.
Things pick up once Julia takes over. The baby looks like her baby, especially when she wakes and you see they have the same blue eyes and curly hair. Julia is bossy about the pram once she gets hold of it. She throws herself into the role, making all the decisions, striding ahead, inventing sudden dramas that require stopping, murmuring into the pram in a low serious voice.
When we finally get to the Housing Commission, we sit on one of the benches at the playground. It’s a shabby playground with two swings, one of them broken and hanging down, a monkey bar and a splintery-looking see-saw. I open a juice box for the baby and put the straw in her mouth. She likes it but doesn’t know how to get the juice up the straw. Julia leans over me and gives the box a squeeze. When the baby swallows, the vacuum draws up more juice. We have taught the baby a new trick.
People come and go, old ladies pushing shopping trolleys, old guys with their dogs in broken old prams. Boys lair around on their skateboards but we ignore them. Three little kids come to play on the monkey bars and we hope the mother will join us. She might be a teenager too, popping out babies and scraping by on welfare and handouts. Doing her best.
Even the baby is bored, so we retrace our steps to the station, me with the pram this time. Two young mothers with punk haircuts and strollers come towards us, both smoking. One of them says something, probably about us, and the other one laughs. Bitches! We are all in the same boat.
‘How old do you think they are?’
I think maybe 18, their kids are older than our one. They look tough. ‘How old do you think we look?’
Julia says 16, we look very young, the kind of young where you think, God, that girl is too young to have a baby. She should be in school. Where’s the father, that irresponsible boy?
‘Should we get some ciggies?’
‘We could if you want but then we wouldn’t have money for food.’
A tough choice, the kind of tough choice a too-young single mother might find herself facing every day. Ciggies or food? Food or ciggies? A hard life to be sure but you wouldn’t trade the baby for anything in the world.
Back at Macaulay Station, the baby starts grizzling and we rock the pram energetically. The next train is express, running straight through at high speed. The baby is bawling now. We could cross to the other platform and take the baby home but there’s still so much to do. It would be a waste to turn back now. Julia rocks the pram and I mop up baby snot with a shredded tissue. I talk to her in a squeaky cartoon voice and she likes that.
‘She’s just bored,’ I say. Soon we are on the train again, racing towards the city. ‘Maybe she’s hungry?’ We could slap ourselves. I can’t find the baby’s food supplies.
Julia takes advantage of the situation and lifts the baby onto her lap while I hunt around. Under the mattress is a bag and in the bag a Tupperware container and three disposable nappies.
Julia snatches the food box without letting go of the baby. With one arm clamped around the baby’s middle, she opens the lid with her teeth. I grab the box that holds a small jar of apple sauce with a spoon clipped on and four Salada biscuits. The baby lunges for the food.
I dig the spoon into the apple and hold it out to the baby. She opens her mouth like a little bird. Adorable. I get the first spoon in and she waves her little hand to say hurry up! As I’m getting the second spoon in, the train rocks and I miss. The baby swipes apple across her face. I get another spoon in quickly.
Julia suggests swapping, meaning she’ll be better at the food spooning. I keep going, next spoon in perfectly. The baby grabs the spoon and tries to feed herself, getting about half in. I take back the sticky spoon and scrape another spoonful out of the jar.
While I scrape, the baby rubs apple sauce into her eyes with both fists. It’s all over her face and hanging off her eyelashes. I get the last spoon in and Julia holds her out to me. I shake my head. ‘You’ve got her. You’re the mother!’
Julia doesn’t want to get dirty but too late. The baby grabs a handful of hair as Julia tucks her back in the pram. She’s a good baby and didn’t mind being covered in apple sauce. I give her a biscuit and she holds out the other hand for more. With one in each hand, sucking and chewing,
the baby relaxes and so do we.
The train pulls into the station, we look anywhere but at the messy baby. ‘You go,’ I say generously.
‘No, you. I was the mother on the train.’ Julia tucks the sticky bit of hair behind her ear. ‘It’s your turn. Only fair.’
I take the pram and wrestle it off the train. The baby’s sticky face and clothes aren’t the best advertisement for my mothering but no-one can shame me for having a baby too young. I’m the only one who knows how it was, finding myself pregnant, the boy irresponsible. The brave lonely birth and disapproving parents who cut me off rather than live with the shame.
I wouldn’t give up my baby for the world.
Humping the pram up the stairs and crossing the big concourse takes ages. One woman looks at the baby, looks at us and flat out scowls, as dour an old matron as you could ever imagine.
‘Tut, tut,’ says Julia and we run giggling with the pram into the scungy old toilets.
We need half a roll of toilet paper and handfuls of water to polish up the baby’s face and wash her darling hands. Julia rinses the hank of hair. I want to do something about the baby’s dress. The whole pram is stuck with half-chewed lumps of biscuit.
When the baby has clean hands, Julia wants to hold her while I do the grunt work. I undo the buttons on the back of the dress and peel it off the little body. She looks perfect in her white singlet and tights, her red slippers, perfect skin and bright eyes. Those curls!
‘She looks just like me,’ Julia says as they stand together admiring the mother/daughter image in the mirror.
‘It’s not all about posing, you know.’ I pick pieces of food off the pram and shake out the sheet. I spot-clean the little dress without making it too wet to wear. I put the baby back in the pram, thread her little arms into the sleeves and do up the buttons at the back. She is all beautiful again.
We leave the station, me pushing the pram and Julia helping lift it down the stairs to the street. This is the real thing. We cross two sets of lights and head for the city square.
People sit on benches, enjoying the sun. Youths on skateboards crash about on the perimeter. Knots of boys loiter, smoking, dressed in their gang outfits, mohawks, piercings, the works. Quite a few people watch us as we parade.
‘My turn.’ Julia grabs the pram and I have to let go or it will look strange. Julia rocks the pram as if the baby is crying when in fact she’s fallen asleep.
‘What’s that terrible smell?’
We both know what it is, just as I know it is my turn to be the mother. ‘Myers! They have a mother’s room with a changing bench and everything.’
We hustle down there pronto, horrible smell wafting, with grim satisfaction as we bump through the crowd. This is how is it, folks. Babies are babies and we’re doing our best.
We take the lift to the fifth floor. They don’t make it easy, putting the mothers room on the top floor. A couple of people who board with us on the ground floor get off at the first, gagging. We have nothing but scorn for them. We bash through the Toy Department, find the mother’s room and lock ourselves in.
We order each other round. Julia covers the change table with paper towel. I unpeel the baby’s dress and singlet and lift her onto the table. The tights have had it so we throw them in the bin. I unstick the tapes to reveal the scope of the task.
We can’t rinse the baby under the tap because there are different taps for hot and cold and no plug. Julia packs paper towel into the plug-hole and fills the basin with correct-temperature water. I immerse the baby’s bottom in the water. She reaches in to splash.
‘No, no,’ we tell her. It’s not a game.
Quick—drain water, new paper plug, new correct-temperature water, baby back in, this time with a soaping. We are drenched, T-shirts, jeans, sneakers, everything. I give up and hold the wet baby to my chest while Julia pats her back and legs with paper towel.
The dirty nappy is still sitting on the change table. We can’t just throw it into the bin. ‘Go get a plastic bag,’ I tell Julia but she shakes her head. I give her the half-wet baby, dig the tights out of the bin, roll the nappy into the tights, and tie a knot over the whole thing. I wipe down the sink and change table with soapy paper towel, cover the table with dry towel and now it’s ready for the baby.
We’re exhausted. Julia steps in to fasten the new nappy and I take over to dress her. The baby looks fed up with the whole performance but she’s all clean and beautiful. Into the pram. We wash our hands and try to repair our appearance. We’ve aged years since we left home. We are wet, starving and have lost our youthful looks.
We make it down to the bank of the Yarra River and collapse on a grassy spot in the sun. I mind the baby while Julia buys hot dogs from a stand. We both like lots of sauce and mustard and after we’ve had a few bites, we relax. It’s not so bad, here in the sun, watching the rowing skiffs and strolling couples and families.
We almost forget about the baby in the pram until she shouts, ‘Hey!’ She wants to get out, and she wants her own hot dog. She sits on the grass between us with the bun in one hand and sausage in the other, chewing from alternate sides with tremendous vigour.
‘She doesn’t need pureed food. Look at her go!’
The baby’s dress has drips of sauce on it but she’s all smiles. Julia and I take turns to toddle her back and forth, holding her hands as her little feet stretch out to take each step. She beams with pleasure and people stop to watch the charming sight. No doubt they are wondering which one of us is the mother.
Without warning, the baby plops down on her padded bottom and her whole face scrunches. ‘Ma, Maa,’ she howls with tears flying. ‘Maaaa!’
I scoop her up, Julia grabs the pram and we run all the way to the station. We make it down the escalators to the platform. Train in five minutes. I walk back and forth jigging the grizzly baby. Julia paces with me, wanting the baby but there’s no way I’m giving her up. I can tell she’s tiring, her body is heavier by the minute. My shoulder is wet and sticky.
The train comes. I wrestle the door one-handed and climb on, Julia behind me with the pram. I turn my shoulder so Julia can see what the baby is doing. Asleep, she says, totally out to it. Together we angle the baby down into the pram. Careful, careful, careful. The baby sleeps on, a piece of bun clenched tight in her fist.
As the train rocks towards home, Julia rests her head on my shoulder and I kiss her temple. Her hair smells of the lemon she puts in it to make it blonder.
‘Mummy,’ she says, snuggling in, and I kiss her again.
We sleep until the end of the line. The conductor gives us a hoy and we give him a wave.
We return the baby to the place she came from, and sprint away home, bigger in each other’s eyes.•
Anne Casey is a Melbourne writer and former librarian. She has been published in Westerly, Overland, Island and medical journal the Lancet. She is working on a novel.
This piece was the winner of the 2018 Peter Carey Short Story Award.